A recent Friday was my 1,379th day of teaching. And it was a day that reminded me what it means to be a teacher. On Friday I used my heart so fully, and this to me is the essence of being a teacher.
Friday morning I went to City College for their annual Poetry Festival. Two of my students had the honor of reading their original poems aloud to a crowd of students, families, teachers, and poets from across New York City.
As we walked into the auditorium, I saw students from my previous school. “Mr. Ruben!” Their faces lit up and they waved excitedly. It is the closest experience to being a celebrity I will ever have. It reminded me how lucky I am to be a teacher. The role we play in young people’s lives is so unique.
It is the closest experience to being a celebrity I will ever have. It reminded me how lucky I am to be a teacher. Click To Tweet
Seeing these young people, and feeling their excitement, swelled my heart up so big, I thought it might explode. The relationship I built with those kids was so special. I learned a lot last year about the centrality of relationships to teaching and learning.
But immediately after I also felt a wave of sadness and anger. I felt a sense of loss because I had to choose between the relationships I had created with students and families, and being treated like a professional.
One of my former students called out at me across a few aisles, “Why did you leave Mr. Ruben?” I couldn’t find the right words to answer.
Later my current students took the stage. I knew they were nervous, but they didn’t show it. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride as they shared their poems. I was proud of them for their writing, but to be honest I also was proud of myself, for bringing the Poetry in Schools program to our classroom. In schools like mine, the arts and poetry, in particular, are sometimes treated as an afterthought. My students’ poems reminded me how invaluable poetry is. It opened up a new mode of expression for my students and gave me a completely new window into their minds.
As the show progressed, I noticed that certain schools seemed to have a disproportionate number of students reading their poems. I couldn’t help but notice that these schools served mostly wealthier, whiter students. I felt angry as I saw a dozen kids from a single school in a gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn come to the stage. Perhaps their poems were simply better, but it felt like a sign of something else. When several of the white kids were introduced with names like Jasper and Chamilia it further signified their privilege. They get to walk through the world with unique names, and nobody will ever question their education or their parents’ education. All of this was going through my mind, and frankly, I was feeling pissed off.
But the show ended. The kids enjoyed the performances, and that’s what mattered most. I said my goodbyes to my former students and co-workers and took my students to the park for lunch and time on the playground. They ended their day with unstructured time in the playground, and I was happy to see them carefree and playful. It’s a side of them I don’t always get to see. Sometimes our classroom is so focused on academic performance it seems like they lose the chance to just be kids.
Sometimes our classroom is so focused on academic performance it seems like they lose the chance to just be kids Click To Tweet
I got home that Friday afternoon feeling the profound type of teacher tired that exists at the end of a school week. I reflected on the wide range of emotions I’d gone through in a single day. The emotional labor we do as teachers have been on my mind a lot as I’ve matured as a teacher. But that Friday felt unique because of the array of feelings I experienced.
All of them, the good and the bad, felt like an encapsulation of teaching. Teaching can be incredibly hard. It can be very rewarding. It can be frustrating. It can be demoralizing. Sometimes the way our kids are treated is infuriating. But through it all there’s so much joy and love to be found. Ultimately, that’s what makes teaching worth it.
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